Today is the second day of the Estonian EU presidency. The Maltese presidency is over. All those involved can breathe a deep sigh of relief and look back with satisfaction at their achievements, some perhaps with a pinch of regret.
This article is by no means a comprehensive assessment of the presidency. It is based on my own experience in assisting presidencies in Council and observing their operations in the European Parliament. It is as subjective as all accounts of a presidency’s success are likely to be.
The Maltese presidency concluded at least 24 main legislative dossiers with the European Parliament. Several are of clear benefit to the citizen, from high-speed internet to energy-efficiency labelling of consumer products. Negotiations on nearly all the deals had started under the Slovak or Dutch presidency and were sealed in the final, and most delicate, negotiations between presidency and Parliament.
The Maltese presidency gained a reputation for being a very good driver of consensus and compromise in the Council of Ministers and a balanced negotiator with the Parliament. Over and above the 24 concluded dossiers, the presidency advanced negotiations within the Council of Ministers on a good number of other legislative proposals but did not seal the deals with Parliament. This leaves a legacy for the Estonian presidency to work on.
Malta will be fondly remembered for advancing the European cause in three areas in particular. In the digital single market it maintained the momentum of the Dutch presidency by finalising the opening of the 470-790MHZ frequency, which lays the ground for faster internet and several developments in the internet of things.
This builds on other steps taken in wholesale roaming and cross-border portability of online content. Although it will take time for these measures to be implemented, the European and Maltese consumer, as well as future jobs, stand to benefit from these decisions.
The maritime sector was a declared priority of the Maltese presidency, which managed to infuse some energy into the Council of Ministers and signed Council conclusions on international ocean governance. Although non-binding, this may lay the path towards a more holistic EU strategy on maritime management.
The EU has realised that handling immigration necessitates a better management of our borders. The Valletta informal Council and its Malta Declaration managed to lay emphasis on our external borders, with concrete measures that include operational assistance in Libya. This political drive was coupled with progress on several legislative dossiers on border control and management, including the new entry-exit system for the detection of people with possible links to terrorism and organised crime.
While there have been several stellar achievements, in one area the feeling in Brussels is that of a lost opportunity. After the crises of 2015, when more than a million asylum seekers entered the Union, the EU was being counted upon to set up mechanisms that would move away from crisis mode – with its loss of life and political drama – and towards sustainable rules on handling migration with European unity and efficiency.
The Maltese presidency set itself the priority of achieving results on seven pending legislative proposals, from the harmonisation of conditions for asylum to the crucial revision of the Dublin regulation. The European Commission had prepared the terrain with legislative proposals, including an overhaul of Dublin to alleviate the pressure on countries of first landing, such as Malta.
The Parliament advanced negotiations on these draft laws and is set to vote on a revised Dublin regulation by September. Progress in the Council has, however, been blocked due to the insistence on finding a consensus between the 27 Member States.
In both the Parliament and Commission, the feeling was that the Maltese presidency had the drive and competence to hammer out concrete legislative measures. That expectation was shattered. It is now in the hands of the Estonians and Bulgarians – two presidencies not expected to prioritise migration.
Though the Maltese presidency wears several medals on its chest in terms of concluded negotiations, 10 years from now it will probably be remembered as the one with a snap election at its climax. There were, however, few hiccups in the business of the Council and dealings with the Parliament. The Estonians rose to the occasion, anticipating their presidency by a few weeks, chairing some Councils and on occasion representing the Council instead of the Maltese in the Parliament.
Who are the heroes of the Maltese presidency? The ministers certainly did their part, even though they had to suspend European engagements to knock on doors in their constituencies. Our gratitude should go to the hundreds of public service officials who drove the negotiations forward with tireless determination, making Malta proud. The heroes were the experts feeding compromise proposals between conflicting positions in the Council of Ministers, the officials chairing working groups and carefully balancing words to inch closer to the deal, and all the other members of the presidency team lobbying incessantly to find compromise.
These people have probably worked every weekend since December. Most of them could hardly attend the taħt it-tinda events during our passionate general election. Some of them doubted whether they could afford the hassle of flying to Malta to vote.
These compatriots did great honour to Malta as a member of the family we call the European Union.
Article written by Peter Agius.
Published on Sunday 2nd July ’17, by Times of Malta.
Peter Agius is a senior European official working with the European Parliament. The views expressed here are his own.